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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Memory Problem? Watch It, Say Experts

Less Gray Matter in Brains of Older Subjects Who Report Problems, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 12, 2006 -- If older adults say they have significant memory problems, monitor those problems, even if their memory test scores are normal.

Brain scans of such people may show less gray matter than those without memory problems, according to a study from researchers at Dartmouth Medical School. It's possible such a loss of gray matter could signal Alzheimer's risk.

Memory may fade a bit with age. But complaints of significant memory loss "warrant evaluation and close monitoring over time," researcher Andrew Saykin and colleagues write in Neurology.

For the study, the researchers looked at 120 people aged 60 and older (average age: early 70s).

Forty participants complained of memory problems, but had normal scores on a battery of memory tests.

Another 40 participants had mild memory problems as evidenced by memory tests.

The final 40 participants reported no memory problems and had normal scores on memory tests.

Memory and the Mind

All the participants got brain scans.

The scans showed that both the groups with low memory test scores and those with memory complaints had less gray matter in their brains than those with no memory complaints.

Participants with low scores on memory tests showed the least amount of gray matter, followed by those reporting memory problems despite normal scores on the tests.

Gray matter typically drops with agingaging.

But the differences between the groups with and without memory issues caught the researchers' attention.

In some people, significant memory loss may be a "very early stage" leading toward dementiadementia, the researchers write.

If so, spotting problems sooner rather than later may give patients a head start towards treatment.

"Early detection will be critical as new disease-modifying medications are developed in an effort to slow and ultimately prevent Alzheimer's diseaseAlzheimer's disease," Saykin says, in a news release.

Study's Limits

None of the participants had Alzheimer's disease, and it's not clear which, if any, later developed it.

Alzheimer's disease typically takes many years to unfold. Little is known about Alzheimer's risk in people whose memory problems are not captured by memory tests.

The study was small and mainly included highly educated whites. More research is needed to see if the findings apply to larger, more diverse groups.

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